A Transit Tour Diary of Istanbul, Turkey

Background

  • Traveled on budget.
  • Arrived at Sabiha Gocken Airport from Dubai and took a transit of 18 hours.
  • Flew out of Ataturk Airport the next afternoon.
  • For reference, I will use Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet as the city destination point. This is the most popular tourist destination in Istanbul.
  • Overall experience was great with some nuances which are not security related but definitely customer experience related. You will likely get ripped off at least once during your trip, but the learning process might make up for a minor ripoff.

Your pre-travel preparation

Suggest you speak with your home mobile carrier and make arrangement to have cell service available in case of emergency (ICE). Once local, I had a hard time figuring out how I can buy a local SIM and have minimum cellular/Wi-Fi service available.

Security First: Good idea to keep a contact card of phone numbers of Police: xx, Fire: xx, Hotel: xx, US Embassy: xx.

Renting a car at the airport is economical. Pair your rental with a GPS. You will likely get a manual car because of hilly road network in Istanbul.

Download offline maps of the cities you are visiting. I find Here WeGo (Formerly Nokia Here Maps) Maps (available on Apple and Android store) to be the best option. Google Maps download of offline maps is a painful process. Offline Here WeGo Maps worked like a charm and I was able to track my cab rides and routes to ensure I am not getting ripped-off again.

Do your homework on Dos and Donts with Istanbul Taksi (Taxi) drivers. 
Prefer to stay at SPG, Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt and/or other known hotel chains. It’s good to experience home-like hospitality services away from home.

Carry Turkish Lira (TL) currency before your arrive at Turkey. Avoid payments in EURO or DOLLAR.

Visit Tripadvisor’s Things to Do page for reference. Also checkout a list of reference links at the bottom of this post including my Flickr gallery from the trip.

Few words of caution

Beware of street smart Taksi drivers who can easily fool you in believing that you are paying fair fare even though they are ripping you off. Trust me, experience counts. :-)

Standard cab fare starts at 3.20 TL (Turkish LIRA) and each KM (Kilometer) cost 2 TL. Yes, a 20 KM journey MUST not cost more than 40–50 TL. If you paid more, congratulations you just got ripped off.

Again, don’t get ripped off by cab drivers. You will find this repeated in many travel blogs and experiences.

“I don’t have change, sir. Sorry”. Always carry loose change and small bills as cab driver(s) will conveniently tell you that they don’t have change or conveniently round up 21 TL to 25 TL and act like they don’t understand/speak English !

Finding signs in and people with English speaking capability can be a challenge so you better start brushing up on your long forgotten sign language.

The staff at the airport will conveniently direct you to cab, shuttle or other transportation. You will just have to make sense of their go left, go right, go go, go sign language. Overall, not a great customer experience.

AVOID paying in EURO or DOLLAR. Always pay in TL if possible. You are unlikely to get change back in Euro/Dollar.

I arrived at the Sabiha Gocken Airport, what’s next ?

Transit visas as available for $30 on-arrival for US citizens. Have $$ as part of travel funds. Credit Cards will likely won’t work. The visa is like a postage stamp that is affixed on your passport and the experience is similar to one at the post office. Yeah, no kidding.

Not many international airlines arrive at this airport so you will not find familiar planes docked all over the airport. This airport is approximately 50–60 KM away from main city attractions and almost 70 KM away from Ataturk Airport. Your best transfer option to city attractions and Ataturk Airport is Airport-operated shuttle bus HAVAS (pronounced: HAVASH) for 15 TL. You don’t have to make reservation online as they run throughout the business hours. You pay inside the shuttle bus once you are seated. HAVAS covers most major city/airport stations. I dropped off at Taksim Square and took a cab to my hotel at Atakoy. Yes, that is where I got ripped off on a 20 KM trip.

The HAVAS shuttle is economical, clean, speedy and delivers good overall riding experience.

The website of the HAVAS shuttle is elementary at best so forget about finding full details on all the stops it makes throughout the transfer journey. It does make frequent, quick and short stops.

Visiting the Sultanahmet tourist attraction area

If your hotel is close to the Metro, then Metro is your best option. Otherwise, just take a cab to the Blue Mosque. Remember, the cab fare starts at 3.20 TL and adds 2 TL per KM of travel. Finding a parking spot for rented car is probably not worth your time. Travel Metro or Cab.

All major attractions ( Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia Museum, Topkapi Palace, Bazaar) are within a one big block across each other. If you arrive early around 8 AM, you will get some quiet time at these attractions. By 10:30 AM, the area was full of tourist.

Don’t forget to locate the grave of Ali Baba (legendary character in Middle Eastern literature). His well-preserved grave is next to the wall of a house on the sidelines of a winding road.

Useful Links and References

All About Istanbul Transit Options | Map of the Metro | Offline Maps Option: Here WeGo

Taksi (Taxi) Dos and Donts

Checkout my Flickr Gallery of Istanbul below:

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